Pacing is a very nebulous term, but it’s basically a distribution of effort over time, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I have waited a few years to write this article because, frankly, it deserved the time and effort, no pun intended. Pacing is a very nebulous term, but it’s basically a distribution of effort over time. It’s a complex concept that demands a comprehensive article, as we are on the forefront of many breakthroughs in sport.
In this article I cover all you need to know to get started with manipulating pacing and rhythm in sports training, and I investigate far more than race strategy for endurance sports. It doesn’t matter if you are a weekend warrior or working with elite sport, this article extracts the cream from the science and showcases a handful of clever ways to improve both the training and competitive output of athletic performance. Even if you just want to add a small spark to training, this blog post can turn a simple practice into a fun session that your athletes will remember for life.
My goal is to broaden the scope of pacing, moving from a specific work rate during an event to ways to prepare athletes for better performance utilizing a combination of training and strategy. When we hear “pacing,” most of us think about endurance sport, but all sports incorporate pacing to some degree. After reading this article you will be able to create a better conceptual framework of what pacing really is and use clever ways to break through training barriers and competitive matchups more effectively.
What Is Pacing Exactly?
Pacing is very broad topic and means something different to various sports disciplines. In fact, if you were to poll different sports and ask for a working definition, I’m sure you would get a lot of unique terms. Additionally, the same sport may bring about different expressions of pace, specifically how track and field may call it either the 400-meter dash or quarter-mile, depending on whom you talk to.
Many people outside of sport see pacing as a way to conserve energy, while aggressive personalities may try to lead the “pack” in the corporate world. Pacing can be a simple rate of work or speed, or a very sophisticated race strategy. Teams may try to control the pace, while many sports struggle to find the right pace or rhythm for their athletes. As you can see, pacing is a very wide-open term and must be carefully defined for the specific audience you work with.
Experts in pacing define the term as “the goal-directed distribution and management of effort across the duration of an exercise bout.” I like that definition, but I would like to point out that we also need to think about the cognitive and skill sides of sport, as pacing in teams can’t just be about how fast an athlete plays or the tempo of the game. Pacing isn’t just the distribution of resources; it’s also the rhythm and skill required to actually utilize the changes in effort. Pacing is not just about conditioning or fatigue; it is understanding what is required to properly train and prepare for game or race day performance. Pacing could be rehearsal, or it could be just pain tolerance mentally, as some sports that are time-based are often about what is between the ears.Pacing is both a physiological and psychological expression, requiring both the body and mind to be on the same page, explains @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
What makes pacing so complex in my mind is that it’s both a physiological and psychological expression. Pacing requires both the body and mind to be on the same page, as a fit athlete with no pacing skills can be rendered helpless later in their competition. Conversely, a cagey veteran may be able to game the system with experience and guile, but they will always eventually fall victim to youth and fresh legs. It’s imperative to understand fatigue and willpower, such as the importance of the game or competition, and how inputs from an environment interact. Knowing how to fool the brain while supporting the body allows the mental to maximize the physical with athletes.
Here are a few points to consider with pacing:
- Make sure athletes are physically prepared, as most pacing errors stem from strategies not reflecting an athlete’s capability.
- Focus on maximal output values as well as specific endurance. Speed reserve still has value past the sprinting events. Faster pacing is the eventual goal with most training programs.
- Pacing is highly motivational, and you should psychologically profile the athlete as they may respond differently to various modifiers in training.
- Rehearsal of pacing matters, but make sure an athlete can learn to win without being dependent on one strategy.
- You can do some mental skills and manipulations to help athletes push and perform better, but make sure you only use those “hacks” sparingly.
- Team sports have to manage decision-making and skill deficits and advantages, so make sure pacing in training prepares for probable situations in games.
In closing, pacing incorporates nearly all variables in sport, including coaching and sometimes the weather and referees or officials. While the clock is a part of most sports, open-style formats like baseball and volleyball are not really limited to a finite amount of time. Therefore, if you want to make an impact in sport outside of generally improving fitness, skill, and speed, you need to know what options exist in sports preparation. I have shared five categories I know where it can make a difference, and I hope you look further into other ways to improve the pacing abilities of your athletes.
The Structure of Pace in Sport
Before we get into the tricks of the trade, let’s learn more about the trade itself with regard to pacing. Pacing is a strategy to use the athlete’s current fitness level so that they can win the competition. Remember that this is a broad area, as plenty of sports are not dependent on a fixed time to win.It’s important to know where pacing fits in each sport so you can create better training programs and know where you can find unique advantages, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The best example is tennis, where the match ends when a winner gets the necessary number of points, not because a clock hits zero. Hybrid sports like boxing and combat sports are combination events, where an athlete can win in a matter of seconds or a fight can go the distance. Finally, many team sports are defined by the clock, as basketball not only has particular time segments, but possession and other partial periods have set time limits. Therefore, it’s important to know where pacing fits in each sport so you can create better training programs and know where you can find unique advantages.
The flow of the game is simply power or velocity over time. Various rules and breaks of the game purposely interrupt the clock or flow, but in general the overall pace of the game can be summarized by Edwards’ diagrams. The flows of most games are slow to fast, even, variable, hard and hold on, finish strong, or start and finish fast. Pacing can be deceptive, as some teams have fast players but appear slow. Less-skilled players play aggressively because they don’t have a feel for the game and often overly rely on their effort and not their brains. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Ironman triathlon or hockey game, competition will mix up the effort and pace depending on the importance of the game and the belief of the athlete.
Mental factors such as motivation and confidence, strategy and tactics, and the obvious preparation of the athlete will determine what pace is ideal. Some athletes who are faster but lack natural stamina may purposely slow down the pace in order to take advantage of their kick, while other aggressive athletes go out hard and see what happens. Athletes who are more blessed with better conditioning or have programs suited for finishing strong tend to stay with the faster athletes and hope to overcome them later in the race.Pace is not the same as speed, and I would classify pace as more of a work rate than speed, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Team sports are similar, where different styles of play are often in juxtaposition, such as watching the various top tier teams play in UEFA Champions League competitions. Various coaches are known for their own styles or pace of play, and some athletes are known for their work rate or pace as well. Still, pace is not the same as speed, and I would classify pace as more of a work rate than speed. Look at James and Messi: both are low-pace athletes who have excellent speed and acceleration when scoring.
Use Pacing Technology and Biofeedback
I will start with the easiest way to improve pacing—know how fast and/or how long an athlete is performing. Feedback is about calibrating perception and reality, and a simple stopwatch or other piece of sports technology can readily give an athlete a better perspective. Pacing should not be limited to reading the rate of speed in a race; it’s understanding time and pace objectively and when feedback is removed. In addition to awareness of speed based on time and distance, the immediate feedback of getting a time can help explosive athletes improve maximal output. Pacing is not just a distribution of effort; it’s about improving maximal effort for a faster performance.
As I have said over and over, just measuring output will instantly increase athlete speed and power. The problem is that immediate feedback is not the same as instant or real-time feedback, and this is where augmented reality options such as heads-up displays can be a game changer. If you find success with a simple “feed the cats” program, additional feedback techniques pour gasoline on the fire. Measuring with rapid response displays improves competitiveness and improves the output of athletes through arousal. Not only are athletes aware of how they are doing, they also learn immediately to find ways to improve their outputs.
Video 1. This video shows Adam Peaty using pacing biofeedback in training. Adam is the reigning gold medalist and world record holder from the Rio Olympics, and he is favored to win this summer in Japan.
The last, but not least, pacing option is “technopacing” using specialty pacing lights. Shane Davenport talked about biofeedback and the LED Rabbit last year, and I hope that 2020 is the year of technopacing using augmented reality and by abstaining from all external inputs in a polarized fashion. Keep in mind timing and the display of timing, whether it’s a large clock or small wristwatch, is just feedback on the performance after it’s done.
During the event or activity there is even more potential ergogenic performance, as the process demonstrates what is needed live to break through barriers. A combination of correct pacing (optimal velocity) and stimulating visual feedback of the lights is hardly new. Speed Trap, the infamous exposé on elite sport, covers pace lighting from 30 years ago by the Germans. On page 106, Charlie Francis writes:
“I had long before sensed that maximum velocity was the primary factor in sprinting, and that speed insurance must be built in at the desired pace, but the East Germans had applied the theory systematically, and with the highest technology. When Marita Koch was training to break the 400-metre world record, she would run on a track ringed by 80 computer-controlled timing lights, set five meters apart to flash at the desired pace. All she had to do was follow the lights.”
Who knows what the future will hold, but we already see a lot of progress in training because of the simple approach of displaying performance data in a competitive environment. Eventually the race will be with the athlete internally, and I know technology will improve biofeedback in the future. With the Tokyo Olympics around the corner, we will see a lot of stories on how feedback with technology is changing the game, and there is no better example than pacing in sport.With the Tokyo Olympics around the corner, we will see a lot of stories on how feedback with technology is changing the game, and there is no better example than pacing in sport. Click To Tweet
Change the Game – Manipulate Spacing and Environment
This method of training is fine for track and field, but when it comes to team sport, it will likely require a lot of coach collaboration and physiological discussion. When you elect to break or change rules for a sport, you literally change the game, even if it’s a slight modification. Some games or sports require huge shake-ups in order to elicit a change that is significant enough to create an advantage, but generally, removing a friction or barrier in the speed of the game can work wonders. Sometimes making things slower improves speed, specifically creating time staggers or similar for either offensive or defense environments.
Unfortunately, not all approaches last or become evolutionary parts of sport. A good example is how Oregon’s “Blur” offense, an extreme hurry-up version of the passing or running game, failed to live as long as other college inventions. Greg Easterbrook wrote:
“The blur offense combines these four existing ideas then executes really quickly. Not only are Oregon’s offensive players swift, but the team signals in plays so rapidly that an average of just 15 seconds passes from the spot of the ball to the next snap. That’s extremely fast. Even polished no-huddle teams typically take 20 to 25 seconds from spot to snap.”
The most common approach to pacing is manipulating spacing by opening up or contracting the space in practice. Small sided games are obvious options in soccer, but other sports can use similar principles of pacing by adding or subtracting players, or even adding sound to improve the rhythm of the practice. Coaches often manipulate the surfaces or environment slightly to force athletes to adjust to changes of game speed.Small sided games are obvious options in soccer, but other sports can use similar principles of pacing by adding or subtracting players, or even adding sound to improve the rhythm of the practice. Click To Tweet
Pacing is not just about conditioning, as I alluded, but it’s also the mental challenge of dealing with both fatigue and the skill demands of team sports. Add in the cognitive parts of sport, such as split-second decision-making, and pacing can be seen as the skill of managing the mental side of the game rather than just knowing how to distribute physical effort over the course of a competition. Overspeed isn’t about artificially expanding peak velocity; it’s sometimes a way to pace athletes to move and think faster. Again, you need to make sure the mental maximizes the physical.
Finally, other environmental factors can play into pacing such as heat and altitude. Often teams that peak early find it hard to sustain dominance, so sometimes knowing that you need to pace a season and risk an unfortunate early loss outweighs running on fumes later. Technically, pacing is about an event or competition, but pacing can arguably extend into a season or career. Pacing is about winning at the end, even if it’s a competition later. Not being fresh and pushing through can work, provided it’s balanced with strategic rest and sometimes supplementation, as explained below.
Schedule Rest and Add Supplementation
Perhaps the most overlooked part of breaking barriers is planned rest and additional supplementation. Periodized supplementation or sports nutrition, in conjunction with training programs (with a short taper), can break through barriers athletes never thought they would be able to achieve. The combination of a known rest period and an additional boost of supplementation usually results in tremendous output, and a noticeable work rate or pace. I am not in favor of just adding supplements to mask fatigue or keep up training volume because a coach is greedy for doing more, but I love adding the combination of strategic rest and a little scientific white coat magic. Fueling and hydrating: Even simple options will change the period of fatigue both physically and physiologically.
Pacing is a combination of strategy and being in peak form, so eventually tapering and resting need to be applied. Most of the pacing strategies are about handling accurate fatigue, and while that is obvious and important, chronic fatigue and overload need to be addressed. It’s hard to push the pace or simulate the necessary pace if your athletes are tired. Also, when athletes are exhausted, going hard is mentally draining, so starting off a hard practice already deep in fatigue is just difficult.Most pacing strategies are about handling accurate fatigue. It’s hard to push the pace or simulate the necessary pace if your athletes are tired, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Supramaximal pacing—going out harder than normal—demands fresh athletes, and this means planned rest. Team sports may not have as much wiggle room or the luxury of resting, but sometimes it’s better to walk away than do a lot of junk reps, knowing that what you actually do rested will work later. It takes guts to rest, but if you don’t get quality done in training, competitions are wishful thinking.
Periodizing supplements is perhaps more about mental barriers than nutritional needs. Supplements are exactly what they sound like—supportive nutrients that sometimes add a temporary or long-term training boost. Just rotating a new supplement from time to time can help an athlete who is dealing with a long grueling season, but it’s also great to add a spark when athletes know they are fresh or rested. Supplementation, even with commonly known boosting agents like caffeine, requires due diligence to really make an impact. Thus, instead of a light mention, I want to make sure you know that there are plenty of articles on supplementation available on SimpliFaster.
The points I am making are not about the physiology of supplements, but the great psychological or placebo boost an athlete gets when they know they are supplementing for a short period of time. It doesn’t matter if it’s a competition or training, athletes who add supplements that are known to be scientifically valid get double the dose, one from the actual physiological component and the other from the known placebo effect. Don’t just add supplements to the program, promote and sell the addition with vigor.
Add Creative and Competitive Relays for Blazing Speed
My favorite of all pacing techniques is to add a little fun at meets that may not matter much. For instance, circus relays involve lining up different combinations of athletes based on their known times and abilities so that each group has the same chance of winning. Nobody knows who will win, and each relay will go hard because they have a legitimate chance of winning the race.My favorite of all pacing techniques is to add a little fun at meets that may not matter much, such as circus relays, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
As an example, have four athletes on a relay that are of nearly identical ability, but not superstars, keep the pace even throughout the entire relay. They will compete against relays that have two horses (fast athletes) and two donkeys (usually underclassmen that are slower). What makes this fun is there will be a massive lead by the two fast athletes, and you will see if the two slower athletes can hold on against two studs from the other lane. Often a steady paced group will be on the outside, just staying even, and will then sneak in the win because they know they don’t have to do hero work or are not scared to choke under the pressure of a lead.
You don’t need to use circus relays in track and swimming, or even competition, just know how to incorporate speed training with some creativity. Competition breeds fast times, but keep in mind that elite relay performance may not be a product of faster athletes.
Video 2. Blind or alert shuttle sprints or other relay games encourage effort. Swift electronic timing not only tracks progress, it also adds optional stimuli for athletes to react to.
There are other relay options that make a difference, including a 1200-meter relay I learned from Coach Hunter. Often, in the fall or early winter, sprint coaches use 300-meter time trials to estimate speed endurance. Sometimes athletes lack a little motivation to go hard, as different programs have different philosophies.
Video 3. Change of direction timing is popular, and you can use various systems to accurately see dueling versus solo runs. Relays can be done in groups or in teams depending on your set-up.
Placing everyone into a relay is a very clever way to not only get faster repetition, but perhaps more validity too. You don’t need to pass batons or tag someone if you are in team sports; you can use shuttle relays or even pass implements or balls to create a relay. There are no rules: Just use your head and don’t push the envelope too much, as competitive instinct sometimes drives athletes too far.
Train with Better or Different Athletes
Elite athletes are in a class by themselves, but the good news is most of the other athletes are a step below. In fact, nearly all athletes can benefit by playing up or down (different age group or talent level). Sometimes playing a different sport or position, or in a different league or conference, is helpful as it changes the demand of the game. If you look at the backgrounds of some great athletes, they played plenty of pick-up games locally without structured or organized competitions. With the freedom to play against the best talents, younger athletes could compete against faster and more skilled athletes and learn to adapt to a faster tempo game.
Finally, remember that sometimes the skills and rules of games slow down or create a stereotypical flow pattern to many sports. By cross training with different sports and sometimes retro games, athletes can break through both skill and conditioning limitations on interrupted flow patterns. “Basketball on grass” was coined by experts decades ago, as the spread offense widened the field and sped up the game.By cross training with different sports and sometimes retro games, athletes can break through both skill and conditioning limitations on interrupted flow patterns, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Many athletes in the tight end position in football have rich basketball backgrounds, such as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, both Hall of Fame talents. Exposure to basketball certainly helped them on the field, but this should not be limited to a few athletes as it is likely that all positions and all sports could benefit from shaking things up and getting out of the comfort zone of sport specialization. Kids develop from playing multiple sports only when they are able to leverage the differences. It’s also likely that talented athletes are good at many sports simply because they are blessed, but I also think variety helps.
Elite athletes will eventually run out of options to push the envelope, and this is when creativity matters. It’s up to the coaches to find a way to discover an imbalance within the confines of the game and push the pace. This can be isolated skills such as passing in soccer or training with schemes to artificially induce pacing changes.
Scrimmaging can be artificially enhanced with task changes, specifically the pacing research by Bruno Gonçalves and Jaime Sampaio. Inserting a fresher or even additional athlete into practices can help keep the training fast and furious if you carefully manipulate rest. Just adding speed comes with a cost, so knowing when to deload the athletes after overclocking them with strategic speed imbalances is essential to reduce injury and burnout.
Go Full-Throttle and Mix Things Up
I hope this article does the topic justice, and I am sure most of you reading will get something out of this. For years I have used some great techniques to shake up the bodies and minds of athletes, and I feel the juice from pacing is liquid gold. If you are serious about turning your practices into intelligent and fun training sessions, make sure you think wisely about how you implement the pacing of training and put conscious effort into refining the process a bit. Again, to summarize the article, coaches and athletes should do the following:
- Calibrate speed and use biofeedback in training when possible.
- Manipulate variables that logically influence the underlying abilities for better pacing later.
- Use strategic rest and supplementation to maximize output for relative pacing.
- Add relay games in shuttle and traditional form to tap into competitiveness.
- Mix and match talents and sports to expose athletes to various speeds and fitness levels.
Remember, pacing is not just for endurance, it’s for all sports and training. Thus, give some of these methods a try and figure out what works for you and your athletes. You’ll need to experiment to get the theoretical ideas to mesh well with your environment, so try the concepts above and make the necessary tweaks so they jive with what you are doing. The implementation doesn’t need to be perfect to benefit your athletes, but like all training ideas, polishing those concepts is worth the added effort.
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